The full moon sits high in the sky, illuminating the garden and the colonnade surrounding it. But the moon’s light is not the sun’s and in the shadows, nothing can be seen. He stands behind one of the stone pillars and gazes at the scene before him, unseen and unknown.
By the fountain in the centre of the garden she sits, her long, ebony tresses cascading to the ground while her chocolate-rich eyes stare dreamily into space. All day long she is veiled and secluded as a modest and pious girl of standing should be, but at night, after sunset, her father lets her sit in the garden uncovered and it is these precious minutes that he longs for all day long, when he can steal a glimpse of this angel from heaven. His eyes trace the line of her breasts outline by her tight gown and revel in the shape of her thighs revealed by the folds in the cloth. He drinks in those rosebud lips and wishes that his own were pressed against them. She is perfect, the very pinnacle of womanhood.
She is but sixteen, a year younger than him.
She sighs, a sigh of great longing and unrequited yearning. Or so he imagines, wishes. In his mind that sigh is because she longs to be with a man, aches for it. But not just any man, only the man she loves, adores with all her heart. And in his fantasies, that man is him, the lowly servant who runs her bath for her and brings her meals. For she is a pure soul, untainted and corrupted by the ways of the world. She cares not for status, money and hierarchies; instead she pursues only the purest of emotions and truth. Love is what matters and love is what exists between them, regardless of the views of this cruel world.
In his fantasies.
She sighs again and then speaks. But what words are these which pass her lips. “Oh me, oh my!” Yes, she yearns. There is a hole in her soul. But why? She speaks again, but what does she say? “Shavarsh,” she mutters to no one and everyone. Truly? Did she really say his name?! He cannot be sure, but it sounded like it. It could, of course, have been Shavab, the name of that arrogant young nobleman who called the other week, or possibly even Shadarev, that self-important army officer so full of himself and cocksure. But no, she is too good for both of them, a heart so pure as hers would never yearn after such superficial dandies. She did say his name, he is sure.
Someone did say his name, but he did not hear it. Nor did she. She did not speak and she would never be aware that someone did. For that person is also unseen, hiding behind a grille in one of the upstairs rooms of the men’s quarters. That man is her father and he has seen the impudent serving boy who spies on his offspring. “Shavarsh,” he whispers to the man standing beside him. “That is the boy’s name.”
“His name is of no importance to me. He shall not be bearing it for much longer.”
“But is he suitable?”
“He is ideal. I could not have picked a better candidate myself.”
“What happens next?”
“We shall take him tonight. I have already summoned my men. He needs to be worked on immediately as it will take him much longer to be ready than her.”
The moon passes behind a cloud and the boy feels sad, for his love is now hidden from him. Like in life, the world has separated them and his fantasies are just that. Deep down he knows that they can never be together, never be close.
Little does he know how wrong he is.
He struggles to sleep. He often does. After seeing her, it is hard to think of anything else. Around him in the packed dormitory, the other servants snore loudly. The master gave them free wine tonight in celebration of a family memorial. This surprised and annoyed Shavarsh. He was surprised because the master is notoriously stingy and never gives away free wine or food, even on religious holidays, and he is annoyed because it was dished out while he was sneaking a look at his beloved in the garden. By the time he returned, it was all gone; they were drunk and he was sober. Just his luck!
But, of course, he was the blessed one, not they. He had spent time in the garden with an angel. This Adam had gazed upon his Eve. As his mind turns towards her enticing curves, his hand strays down as it so often does these days. His has to be silent, as silent as the night, and still too. He massages his already rock-hard member with visions of her beauty to aid him and brings himself to the brink when…
The door is flung open and light streams in. Shocked, he sits up. Four masked men enter and make their way across to his bed. He screams and one of the men lunges forward to grab him, putting his hand over Shavarsh’s mouth. “No use screaming, son,” says his unknown assailant; “that wine was drugged; even the Second Coming couldn’t wake this lot!” Two of the other men take hold of his arms and his legs and render his struggles useless. Then the fourth man approaches, brandishing a large needle. He looks at the rock-hard member standing up proudly and smiles. “That’ll not be getting any relief for quite some time,” he laughs cruelly, grabbing the throbbing member with his free hand. Shavarsh shakes his head frantically and screams into the hand of his captor. The needle descends and is plunged into his arm.
Within seconds his world turns black.
Beep. Beep. Beep.
What is that infernal sound? It pervades my dreams and follows me wherever I go. It sounds like a machine, a machine in a hospital. Have I had an accident? Where am I? What has happened?
Such were the thoughts of Shavarsh as he lay in that half-world between waking and sleeping.
Something had happened? He was somewhere? In fact, he was in the same medical complex that Almast was to occupy a month or more later when she received the honour of reduction. Not that he was to learn that.
For unlike the sultan’s new pillow companion, no one ever thought it necessary to explain things to the boy once known as Shavarsh.
When he did awaken, he panicked. He was lying on his side on a bed and his body felt somehow wrong. He tried to turn over onto his back how he usually slept, but found it impossible, like his body didn’t want to be in that position anymore. He opened his eyes but they didn’t work. Or at least, not as they used to. Light flooded in but that was all. An opaque light with only then vaguest of outlines discernible. Like looking through a window of frosted glass.
Except that this was now his normal sight.
He brought his hands round to find out what but after only a couple of centimetres, something prevented them from moving further. His wrists seemed to be linked by a chain behind his back. that was one of the reasons why he was lying on his side.
But not the main one.
As he readjusted himself back to this world, he ascertained that his body was covered all over, encased in some sort of tight suit , but the sensations coming from his body made this inconsequential for the moment, for his spine seemed no longer straight, but bent in a weird way somehow.
Now he was scared.
And the beep-beep-beep continued ad infinitum.
What was worse was that no one seemed to be concerned or to care. There were people about, he could sense them. Slight vibrations as they passed. Several times they leaned over him and his near-useless sight darkened. They attached something to his mouth and he felt something being pumped into him. After that the pangs of hunger went. They would also remove the plug that he could feel in his butt and insert something there too. Water would rush in causing his stomach to distend and then cramp. Then it would rush out again and the plug was replaced. It felt disturbing and wrong, violating.
No one spoke to him or acknowledged him.
Well, maybe no one spoke to him. The problem was that he couldn’t hear anything. He worked this out when the first vibrations were felt. He knew instinctively that these meant that a person had entered the room, but there was no corresponding sound to go with it, no rustling in the air, only absolute silence and the infernal beeping. Then he realised that they’d messed with his hearing.
Whoever “they” were.
It was several days before he found out. Days spent lying there, accompanied only by the beeps, blind, deaf, altered somehow, and scared.
And then the beeps ended. They ended and a voice came into his ears. “We are going to stand you up now. You will learn to walk again with your new body. You must obey all the instructions that I give you. Failure to do so will result in punishment.” It was a male voice and it had no trace of kindness in it.
Arms took hold of him and he was stood up. But when he was standing, it was not like before. He was shorter and his head and chest seemed to be thrust forward compared with his bottom and legs. After so long – how long, he wished he knew…? – lying on the bed, his legs were weak and he would have fallen. But even when he did have the strength to stand unaided, his balance was out. If he balanced and walked like he used to, he just fell forward. With his spine bent so severely, his whole body was out of kilter and he needed to relearn how to use it.
It took time. Day after day, week upon week. Each was tortuous and mind-numbingly boring. He was instructed by the voice in his ears. “Walk forwards!”; “Stop!”; “Turn around!”; “Walk forwards!”; “Stop!” and so on. And for each time he failed, there was a price to pay.
The first time it came as a terrible shock. Literally. He had been out of the bed for two days and had been instructed to walk forwards ten steps. But on the fourth he stumbled, his balance went, and he fell. Someone caught him but it didn’t matter. A bolt of pain shot through his body. It emanated from the plug in his bottom. Then the voice said, “That was the lowest setting. If you continue to fail, the voltage will increase.” It was a great incentive to learn.
And learn he did. By the end of the week, he could stand and walk unaided; by the end of the second week, he could even jog and his walk was sufficiently elegant for the voice. Then something was dumped onto his back, like a heavy sack. And it was at this point that an explanation was given.
“You will now be trained for your future role in life. Your purpose now is to act as a carrier for the sultan’s latest pillow companion. You are to be her legs and her arms; she shall be your eyes and ears. Fail and you will be punished. Succeed and rewards shall come your way.”
This brief explanation opened as many questions as it did answer them. What was a pillow companion? What is a carrier? Why him? He longed to ask these things but of course could not. However, it was as if the voice sensed his concerns, for it then continued, “You have worked hard over these last few weeks and so I shall now demonstrate how you will be rewarded. Turn left and stand still!”
Shavarsh turned and then, to his amazement, the clouds covering his eyes cleared and he enjoyed proper sight for the first time in weeks. Joy filled his heart and he felt like dancing. However, then he noticed the image in the mirror before him.
It was vaguely humanoid, but only vaguely. Whatever it was was covered in some sort of suit, dark material decorated with exquisite gold and silver embroidery. It had no face, merely five pinholes in the dark fabric: two at the nostrils, one for each eye and a slightly larger one at the mouth.
What was most incredible though, was that it was bent forward at an unnatural angle and then the chest forced up and back. What had happened to its spine? Could surgery even do that? On its back was a saddle and sitting on the saddle was a queer doll. It had the face of a pretty girl, but unlike all the pretty girls he knew, this one had neither arms nor legs, more like a living pillow than a normal girl. She was smiling. It was expressionless.
It was him.
He stared in disbelief and horror. What had they done to him? Why? Then he noticed something else. Woven into the embroidery on his forehead was, in mirror-image, a word: Ալմասդ – Almast. Almast! That was the name of his beloved, the girl who filled his dreams, whom he used to spy upon and fantasise about. The very pinnacle of womanhood. He tried to touch the word with his hands but they were, as always, chained behind his back. The voice, however, understood.
“Almast is the name of the pillow companion that you will serve. She will ride and you will carry. You belong to her and she belongs to the sultan. Now, we must return to your training for you need to be ready soon. From now on you shall train with this doll on your back so that you know what it is like to carry her.”
And with those words, his sight became opaque once more.
After that his training became both harder and easier. Walking around with a saddle and weight on his back was definitely more challenging and tiring than when there was nothing there. The strain was enormous and this – coupled with the fact that the weight might flop this way and then the other, affecting his balance – meant that he received more punishment shocks and was sweating from exertion almost continuously.
Conversely though, the little that he had been told, set his mind at rest somehow. He now understood what had been done to him and why. Well, a little. He knew why he had a contorted spine and why he was being expected to walk around gracefully. What had not been explained was why him and not someone else, a criminal perhaps, who deserved to suffer so. But then again he mused, his mind having nothing else to occupy it, the little that he had been told, could indicate why it was he who had been chosen. After all, he now belonged to ‘Almast’. Could it be, could it truly be that this Almast was the very same as his beloved, that pinnacle of feminine beauty, purity and perfection that he had spied on so often in the garden? Had he himself not prayed to be allowed to be with her and serve her?
As he trained vigorously in his opaque, isolated and highly-restricted world, his mind engaged in a vicious debate with itself.
-Just because she is called Almast, it doesn’t mean that she is your Almast, you idiot?
-But why not? Why shouldn’t it be her? The voice said that she was a pillow companion to the sultan himself and why would he not pick the most beautiful girl in all creation to share his bed?
-Does your idiocy know no bounds, Shavarsh? That Almast is a noblewoman, not some concubine of the sultan? She is too pure and innocent to be subjected to such a degrading role! And besides, did not the voice tell you that the pillow companion that you would be carrying has no arms or legs? And does not your Almast have all her limbs?
-But they could have removed them! The thought is horrible, too horrible to contemplate it is true, but they could!
-And why would they do that? Why would the sultan destroy such perfect limbs and turn that pinnacle of womanhood into nothing more than a torso, a mere pillow, a toy? That would make him evil beyond imagining and yet everyone in Hayastan knows that our ruler is just and pious!
-Just and pious?! And would a just and pious man agree to me being mutilated as I have been? Is this ridiculous body and suit not proof enough of his evil?
-You are nothing, a mere serving boy! What is done to you does not count! But her? Your precious Almast, she is noble and so cannot be touched! This Almast is another, a whore from the streets, who has deserved such mutilation and is fit only to serve men sexually.
-No, she is mine! I feel it, I sense it. Her father saw me spying on her and has wreaked his revenge.
And so on and on, until his mind was exhausted and he could think no more.
And then, one day – after how many he could not say as they all seemed to roll into one another – the training stopped and things changed. When he awoke in the morning, he felt clean and fresh. Unlike before, the voice did not command him to undergo exercises with the saddle and weight on his back. Instead, it spoke to him slowly and gravely.
“Today your training has ended and your role begins. You have worked hard and learned well and your sultan is proud of you. In a few minutes, Almast will be introduced to you. She will sit on your back and she will command you. You will rarely hear from me again.
Like with me, her voice shall reach your ears. When she sits on you, a connection shall be made which will activate a microphone that she wears in her nose jewel. She has been instructed to whisper and you shall hear her instructions. When she has been seated on you, you will be granted an hour to get accustomed to one another. Then you shall begin your role. If you fail in any way, you know the consequences. The shocks that you have received thus far have all been on the settings 1 or 2. The dial goes up to 10. This is enough to kill you. Conversely, if you perform well, you shall be rewarded. Sight will be allowed for the most intimate of occasions. Let this spur you on. Goodbye Carrier of Almast.”
And then there was silence.
He felt a chain being attached to his collar and he was led somewhere. Then he was stopped and the hateful saddle was fitted on his back. Hateful until now that is; this time though his heart pounded with anticipation. His role would soon commence! His pillow girl would soon be seated upon his back! And if that pillow girl was his Almast? Oh, sweetest of saddles!
His leash was yanked and he was led away again.
He walked a short distance and then stopped. Shadows moved before his opaque eyes and then he felt a weight being fastened onto his saddle. It felt like the training doll but he knew that this burden lived and breathed as he did! As it settled in something connected and he could hear a disturbance in his ears. Then, a voice. A female whisper. The faintest, most melodic, most welcome of all whispers. “Hello carrier, I am Almast, your mistress. I hope we can get on well together.”
It was his Almast! His darling! His beloved!
“Walk five paces!”
He stepped forwards with glee.